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Erwin Henry Johnson, Ph.D. (1928-1988)

Born August 23, 1928 in Chicago, Erwin (Erv) Johnson attended Taft High School in Park Ridge, IL.
 His grandfather, Nels Johnson, was five years old when he came to Chicago from Sweden with his father,
Mons Monson.

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a course from Erv. I remember sitting in Foster 210, watching a young, skinny, Associate Professor pace from one side of the room to the other, lecturing about kinship systems, diverse economic strategies, and telling us wonderful stories of Japan. And all the while, an unruly shirttail was flapping behind him.

Joyce Sirianni, Ph.D. Chair of Anthropology,
University at Buffalo

1988 speaker at the memorial service


In 1946, Erv enlisted in the Army, where he served in the Signal Corps. He was sent to Japan and was in the Special Services. He was discharged in November 1947. 

 He attended Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he majored in Sociology
and minored in Economics.
 He spent a year in Los Angeles, working at UCLA and taking courses, after which he returned to Chicago and then onward to New York City to study. Erv put himself through
 first years at Columbia University by joining the Merchant Marines, and serving as a Purser for the American Lines, where he traveled back and forth to Europe.

He became enamored with Japan when he served in the Army during the occupation, and this was the motivating factor to his pursuit of a career in anthropology. 

While at Columbia University, Erv became convinced that anthropology could explain
the human condition better than any other discipline. He combined his love of
anthropology with his love of Japan. In 1955, Erv met his future wife Anastasia (Stacey) Kozar in New York City.  They were married the next year and moved
for two years of research in a Japanese mountain village, Nagura Mura.
 He earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1961. 

 Erv joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Buffalo in 1962.
 On his first sabbatical in 1967, he and his family, now with four children, returned to Japan, where they lived and he did research in a farming village near Nagoya.


Around 1978, Erv had been doing research in urban anthropology, focusing on the social structure of opera, opera being one of his most intense loves. Once again, he blended his professional and personal interests. Erv continued his research on opera, so  he could spend as much time as possible  studying his beloved artform. 

 Since his early years of listening to Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, and his high school years of ushering at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, he cherished opera, and now had the opportunity to share it with others. 

Erv and Stacey spent many weekends, and week nights attending opera in the Western |
New York Region. They found a proliferation of opera productions, and continued their advocacy  by meeting with other opera lovers in other cities, and by co-founding the OperaBuffs of WNY in Buffalo. Erv believed an audience did not need to be limited to
a place, therefore, numerous road trips and lectures were enjoyed.  Opera lovers came
from all over the region to experience the expanded offerings 
WNY had to offer.

Johnson expanded his research after he received a grant from the Canadian Government to study opera in Canada. Much of his work in this area took place after his diagnosis of
cancer and radical surgery. Until the time he passed away, Erv, through his knowledge
and outreach, brought more people together in the pursuit of opera. He cared for each one
as though they were the most important person in his life, and they responded in turn.

The last few months of Erv’s life were spent fighting the aggressive cancer. He continued
to invite his doctors to come to the opera, to call to reserve tickets for OperaBuffs and generally to preside over the group. Only in the last two weeks of his life did he give
up these activities. He died September 23, 1988. He was 60 years old.

Johnson was outspoken about the need for a new opera house on the Niagara Frontier. He bequeathed his dream to WNY “Where is Our Opera House?” in his last editorial in OperaBuffs Newsletter.
 Excerpts were also published in the Buffalo News following his death.

The Erwin H. Johnson Memorial Fund was established to be used for the furthering of opera in Western New York, and especially the establishment of an opera house in Buffalo, as expressed in his last editorial. The first concert was held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, January 30, 1989 at 8:00 p.m.  

We want our opera house! We find ourselves with a wonderful venue for our celebrated orchestra and a good roadhouse in Shea’s Buffalo for touring productions. However, when it comes to opera and ballet, we lack the specialized facilities necessary.

These, of course, may be considered artistic luxuries, but given our depth in musical artistry, we deserve to pamper ourselves. Properly designed and publicized, such facilities would spread the word about the truly changing Buffalo.
 We want our opera house!  

Erwin H. Johnson, Ph.D. Anthropologist, 

urban scholar and opera lover

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